His teeth chattering, his fingers and toes numb in the deep cold, William Farnham of Bangor struggled through knee-deep snow as he approached the Bear River in Washington Territory about 4 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 29, 1863.
Around him other men clad in Union blue cursed the snow, their colonel and their enemies as Co. K, 3rd Regiment California Volunteer Infantry advanced toward its first Civil War battle.
A Bowdoin College graduate, Farnham had joined the regiment in late 1861 to fight Confederates in Virginia. Now the 3rd California’s glory and promotion-seeking commander, Col. Patrick Edwin Connor, led his men to attack a satisfactory substitute: several hundred Shoshones allegedly raising Cain in today’s Idaho, Montana and Utah.
Rather than ship the Californians east, the War Department sent them to replace regular Army troops withdrawn from far-flung Western outposts. The Ireland-born Connor had marched 750 men to Salt Lake City in Utah Territory in July 1862; there he established Camp Douglas, and his men kept watch on area Indians.
Farnham had arrived in California via a teaching job in Alabama and military service in Mexico. He and his comrades lived uneventfully at Camp Douglas; then in January 1863, Connor learned “from various sources” that “a large body of Indians” had camped on the “Bear River, in Utah Territory, 140 miles north of this point,” as he reported on Friday, Feb. 6.
Since the previous summer, intermittent violence had killed Shoshones, settlers and miners around the Cache Valley, located where Beaver Creek flows into the Bear River in today’s southeastern Idaho. The valley actually lay within Washington Territory 150 years ago.
Approximately 400-600 Shoshones had established a winter camp in the Cache Valley. Connor intended “to chastise them if possible.”
On Thursday, Jan. 22, the Co. K soldiers had “received marching orders to go on an expedition against a tribe of Indians about 140 miles north of this place,” Farnham recalled in a letter later written to his parents from Camp Douglas. The Bangor Daily Whig & Courier published the entire letter on Page 1 on Friday, March 13.
Farnham provided a detailed account of the Battle of Bear River, which he hyped as a grueling fight against numerically superior Indians.
Col. Patrick Edward Connor assigned 70 men (including Farnham) from Co. K as “the only infantry” and sent along “two 12-pound howitzers and a train of 15 wagons and ambulances,” Farnham wrote.
Commanded by Capt. Samuel Hoyt, Farnham and his comrades marched northward after leaving Camp Douglas at noon on Jan. 22. At times wading through snow, the infantrymen suffered miserably in the subfreezing temperatures.
Two days later Connor rode out with 220 cavalrymen from the 2nd Regiment California Volunteer Cavalry. He ordered his troops to converge on Franklin, a Mormon town that now lies in Idaho just north of the Utah state line. “On the fourth day out we were overtaken” by the cavalry, recalled Farnham.
“That night and the next forenoon we marched 34 miles through snow a foot deep, and with the mercury down to zero,” he wrote.
At midnight Wednesday, Jan. 28, “we started for the Indian encampment, distant 12 or 14 miles,” Farnham recalled.
Deep snow, “now over two feet in depth,” hindered the horses pulling the howitzers, he wrote; leaving “a large guard” to protect the snow-bound wagon train, Connor plowed ahead with his remaining infantry and cavalry.
By 4 a.m. Farnham and his comrades approached the sleeping Shoshone village, where warriors had prepared for a potential fight. Connor left more infantry “on a hill where we expected the guns to be stationed,” although “the howitzers … did not arrive until the fighting was all over,” Farnham wrote. Now “our company went into action only 34 men strong, and as the cavalry dismounted and left a large number to hold their horses, our only attacking force was about 150” men.
The Californians forded the “rapid and wide” Bear River, which “was about waist deep and filled with running cakes of ice,” he wrote. “The cavalry easily crossed, but it was too deep and swift for infantry.
“About a dozen of us tried it and got on to an island of ice in the middle” of the river, “where we were compelled to wait till the cavalry sent us horses to cross on,” Farnham recalled.
Farnham estimated that “between 300 and 400 warriors” now waited “in a ravine full of willows, which completely hid them from our sight til we were close upon them. They were well armed with rifles and pistols, very few of them with bows and arrows.”
“The fighting commenced about sunrise and continued without intermission for four hours,” Farnham reported. The 2nd California Cavalry charged “before the infantry came up,” and the warriors “repulsed the first charge. When our company arrived a few minutes afterwards, we turned their left flank at a double quick, crossed the ravine above them and came down on the other bank.
“Then our Minnie [sic] muskets began to tell as we slowly pressed them down the ravine, our company on one bank, the cavalry on the other and a small party in the center,” he described the exciting fight. “They hotly contested every inch of ground, and at one place they held us at bay for three quarters of an hour.”
Farnham described a savage, no-quarter-given battle that might have ended in defeat. “Our men without exception fought desperately, for if we had been defeated not a man of us would have been spared to tell the tale,” he wrote.
Indian men, women and children fled, and the Californians pursued them. Wielding knives and tomahawks, a few warriors fought the soldiers hand to hand. Surviving Shoshone warriors attempted to buy time with their lives as their families fled across the fast-flowing Bear River.
“We killed about 275 Indians, and many more were drowned in attempting to escape by swimming” across the ice-laden river, Farnham remembered.
The Californians lost 14 men killed and 45 wounded, “eight of whom have since died,” he told his parents. Among the wounded was an orderly sergeant, A.J. Austin; originally from Ellsworth, he lost his right eye to an Indian musket ball.
The soldiers also captured 175 horses, “and all their arms and other property were either taken or destroyed,” Farnham reported.
“After the fight we recrossed the river with our killed and wounded and slept on the snow, and the next day took up our line of march” for Camp Douglas, which Connor and his men reached on Feb. 4, Farnham wrote.
Californians suffered terribly from frostbite; “my toes were frozen,” Farnham admitted, but he did return “to duty [the] day before yesterday and stood my regular guard last night.”
Expressing a typical Westerner’s disdain toward Indians, Farnham promised his parents, “You may [be] rest assured that Californians are not very merciful towards them and their loss is all embraced in the word killed.”
He stressed that “we left no wounded” warriors alive. “Their women and children, however, were left unharmed, except for a few who were accidentally shot.”
He lied — and he knew it.
As Indian resistance crumbled, soldiers scoured the ravine and, as Farnham acknowledged, shot the wounded men. Most Shoshone warriors died in and around the ravine, leaving primarily women and children to flee across the Bear River or hide in the willow thickets along its bank.
As they advanced through the large Indian camp, the Californians shot children too frightened or too young to escape. Californians also shot those Indians caught “playing dead.”
Connor later reported finding “224 [Indian] bodies on the field,” which surprisingly “I was unable to examine.” Concerned with evacuating their own casualties, his men “left a small quantity of wheat for the sustenance of 160 captive” Indian women and children.
The evidence of a massacre quickly mounted. An Idaho State Historical Society report acknowledges Connor’s capture “of 160 women and children … most of all of whom were deceased, at least by the next day.” Who or what killed those women and children?
Local Mormon settlers visiting the battlefield within the next 24-36 hours counted some 400 dead Shoshones, of whom approximately 270 were women and children. A thorough search found only five surviving Shoshones: two women, two boys and a 3-year-old girl. Some Shoshones did escape.
Not long afterwards a Danish immigrant claimed to count 493 Indian bodies while walking twice through the camp, where the soldiers had burned 70 lodges and their contents.
Did the 160 noncombatants acknowledged in Connor’s report freeze to death that Thursday night? Or were they already dead when the California soldiers exited the battlefield?
Either way, their deaths were battle-related — and thus were caused by the California soldiers.
And Farnham was now a proud Civil War veteran. “I know that our ‘Battle of Bear River’ looks insignificant with the wholesale slaughter in the east,” he admitted to his parents, “but we who were in it know that we could have fought no better had we numbered 100,000 on a side.”
William Farnham had just participated in what was possibly the greatest massacre of American Indians in the 19th century.
Brian Swartz is the BDN special sections editor. An avid Civil War buff, he has extensively explored and photographed Civil War battlefields throughout the South. Swartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his blog at http://maineatwar.bangordailynews.com.